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From attachment issues to healthy relationships with food, parents play an integral role in helping their children live their healthiest lives
Whether toddlers or adolescents, children are constantly growing and developing. They are learning how to live within and respond to the exciting, new world around them. With so many opportunities to learn, parents play an integral role in the development of their children.
“Children have many emotional, social, physical and educational needs, so parents have the challenging job of making sure those needs are met,” said Bradley Bogdan, LCSW-S, clinical social work supervisor at the Department of Psychiatry in the Texas A&M College of Medicine. “Parents can do many things to help raise a well-rounded child.” Bogdan and his team of licensed master social workers from the Outpatient Psychiatry Clinic discuss the biggest, most impactful ways parents can influence the mental and social well-being of their children.
Foster healthy relationships with food
Many parents are familiar with the phrase “picky eater,” especially with regard to their young children. “Parents should learn to talk about food in such a way as to prevent their children from becoming food restrictive,” said Amanda Fath, LMSW, clinical social worker at the Outpatient Psychiatry Clinic. “When introducing new foods, do not categorize foods as healthy or bad. Instead, parents should teach children the importance and value of nutrition and how to set limits.”
Children eat a lot as they grow and develop. Therefore, it is important for parents to introduce a variety of foods with different colors and textures when they are young. If a child is already a “picky eater,” then Fath suggests slowly introducing new foods. “Serve trouble foods in small amounts, whether half a bite or a spoonful, alongside the child’s meal,” she suggested. “When your child is struggling to eat the food, sit alongside them and offer support, validation and encouragement. They need to learn that although it is difficult to try new foods, they are okay.”
Often parents make their children stay at the dinner table until they finish their food. According to another clinical social worker at the clinic, Danielle Dobias, LMSW, this practice may unintentionally associate that new food with the negative punishment. Both Dobias and Fath recommend parents focus on encouraging and celebrating with the child as they try new foods.
Create day-to-day consistency
It is important for parents to create consistent expectations and effectively communicate those expectations to their children. “One thing that interrupts development in children is stress and the related complications that come with stress,” Bogdan said. “If a child is in a stressful living situation, but they have consistent expectations, then they tend to grow up as a well-adjusted adult with healthy habits.”
Similarly, Dobias notes consistency in the day-to-day routine is important as well. “Parents should strive to maintain a consistent routine with their child,” she said. “Even on weekends, keep the mealtimes and the bedtimes relatively consistent.”
Build a strong relationship
In addition to consistent expectations and routine, parents should remain consistent, positive role models as well. “Parents should foster an open relationship with their children, so they feel comfortable asking for help,” said Jared Mowery, LMSW, a clinical social worker at the Outpatient Psychiatry Clinic.
On a similar note, parents should be vulnerable around their children and express a full range of emotions to create a model for their children. “When the child internalizes negative emotions or cannot process certain feelings, the child may not learn to process them later in life. A parent can show through example how to handle their feelings,” Mowery said.
Enable sound decision-making
We all know those adults who cannot make decisions. Although it rarely detrimentally impacts day-to-day function, the act of deciding can go a long way toward making someone feel empowered.
The social work team recommends parents allow their children a little control during the day. Whether picking their own outfit, the family movie or a side dish at dinner, those decisions can help the child feel valued and important within the household.
Furthermore, Dobias recommends letting children make a decision based on options their parents provide. To explain, she uses the example of a bedtime routine of taking a bath, brushing teeth and getting into bed.
“Give your child a choice of two things that are beneficial to him or her,” she said. “If you need him or her to take a bath, then you could ask if he or she would rather brush teeth before taking a bath or take a bath before brushing teeth.” She also gives the example of asking if they would like to skip or walk to the bathtub. Both options get them to the bathtub. However, the child feels more autonomous and empowered by choosing how they get there.
Maintain parental mental health
“As a parent or caregiver, it is easy to become tired, overwhelmed and stressed,” Mowery said. “Parents need to take time for themselves. If you cannot take care of yourself, then you will not be able to take care of other people.” He lists a few ways to maintain mental health amidst the chaos of parenting:
- Meditate for a few minutes at a time
- Sit in your car after work or an errand for a few minutes to switch from “work mode” to “home mode”
- Go to regular therapy sessions
- Find ways to have fun in day-to-day activities
Furthermore, Fath encourages parents to establish coping mechanisms for both themselves and their children during times of distress like temper tantrums. “If you need to walk away from a tantrum to collect yourself, then do it,” she said. “Find healthy ways to cope with your stress and teach your children to do the same. Often, young children can play with a sensory object like modeling clay during a moment of distress to make them feel more at ease. Find what works and encourage it.”
Create an environment suitable for learning
Much of children’s learning happens outside of the classroom, so it is important for parents to support their children’s academic growth. Often, parents may not be able to help their children with homework due to a lack of education or an education that occurred years ago. “Parents can help their children academically succeed by providing structure around their homework and study time,” Bogdan said. “Make sure your children have a consistent time set aside to work on homework. Also, the household needs to promote and value that homework time as something important.”
Similarly, if you cannot help your child with their homework, encourage them to use outside resources like other family members or after-school help from the teacher or a tutor. Parents should communicate and encourage participation in those options. Moreover, do not say, “Some people are just not good at math,” when your child struggles in math or a certain subject. Remind them it is possible to understand those challenging subjects and show them how they can work through their struggles.
Become engaged with expectations
“As a parent, you are constantly trying to manage expectations and figure out how much praise and feedback to give,” Bogdan said. “I recommend you have a lot of consistent engagement, positive reinforcement and high—but not unrealistic—expectations for your child.”
Often, parental expectations shape a child’s self-worth and personal belief in their ability to succeed. As a result, Bogdan encourages parents to set those high expectations. However, he encourages high levels of praise when those expectations are met. Be consistent about expectations and be intentional about positive feedback.
Media contact: Dee Dee Grays, email@example.com, 979.436.0611